This is an undeniably important book, so much so that writing a review seems more difficult than should be. “Here, read this” feels like it should suffice, as should the judgmental looks when I find that someone hasn’t. There is a good reason that this is recommended reading in American schools (or at least the good ones), .
The book’s protagonist is the developmentally disabled Charles Gordon, who is undergoing clinical human trials for a drug that can reverse whatever it was that caused his mental disability. He will go from being one of the most mentally feeble people in society to one of the most mentally acute, and we will follow his journey.
If a cruel word had to be found for this book its that it might be considered a slow start. The book is presented as the personal diary of the protagonist, and so the initial chapters where he neither articulate himself or spell very well can be off putting to some. But it is certainly masterfully done, and Charles’ intellectual progression is gradual enough to really feel the pain of his education. This also creates a very strong sense of dramatic irony, where we know the progress of Charles’ intellectual progression well before he does. And the book never manages to insult the reader either: once Charlie is full aware of no longer being the same person he once was his reporting of the world around him is never done in a way to make the reader fell dumb (as David Foster Wallace tries to, creating caricatures instead). We see his intelligence, but in a human way.
And its humanity is the book’s strength. The novel is of course not just the science of a person’s intellectual development, but as well explores both the familial and societal implications of the developmentally disabled within our society. For some of this we watch it twice, once when the protagonist has awareness of what is going on and once without. The emotional core of the story comes from when Charles must re-evaluate the more painful experiences of his early life now with the complete understanding of how cruel his family is. The whole arc of the story creates a look at a character who always demands your sympathy, despite always being different from us. Charles travels across the bell curve of intellect, and although it is never clear when he passes us we are aware that he at some point must have. Regardless of where he is on that journey, we come to empathize with his struggles.